Thursday, January 30, 2014

Yay! I Finished Another Book - "Johnny Carson" by Henry Bushkin

Yeah, I knew that, as soon as this book came out, it would soar to the top of my reading list.   And, when I cracked it open on a flight from LA to NY, I couldn't put it down.  So much so that I finished it on a single plane ride.  It reads so quickly that the foreword should have been written by Evelyn Wood.

And that last line sounds like a joke that might have been in one of Johnny Carson's monologues.

Of course, I was captivated by this guy for many years.  He was the show business king starting in my childhood.  I've written before about my very young excursions with my best buddy Leo to see the Tonight Show taped whenever it was in NY.  I would write bits for the neighborhood kids that mimicked some of Johnny's routines. 

And I never really stopped watching when I was an adult.  I'd always tune in to hear his monologue.  I mean, that's how I found out what was going on in the world.   And, unlike the late night talk show comics that followed, you never knew where Johnny's political side leaned.  (You learn in this book that he was a bit of a Republican and may have gravitated to the Tea Party.)  He skewered everybody and that's what made it so grand.

Sometimes, I'd hang in there on a work night, depending upon who was the guest.  Folks like Suzanne Pleshette or Tony Randall or Joan Rivers or Jimmy Stewart or Don Rickles or Bob Newhart would keep me tuned in.  Or if that gal from the San Diego Zoo was showing up with a chimp or an ocelot.

When Johnny Carson retired in 1992, I made a silent vow never to walk late night television again.   And, except for some isolated incidents where I was intrigued by a guest or two, I held steadfast and loyal to Mr. Carson.

With this book, you learn everything that was going on with the man for the twenty year span of 1970 through 1990.  Those were the years when the author, Henry Buskin, was Johnny's lawyer, confidante, and best friend.  Of course, since Carson's been dead for about a decade, Bushkin is now telling tales out of school and I suppose that, with a best friend like this, you don't need an enemy.

Still, Bushkin offers a very insightful and multi-layered look at this television genius.  Here was a complex guy.  On camera, he was personable and funny and a joy to be around.   Off camera, he was personable and funny and a joy to be around.


Off stage, Johnny could also be petty, generous, mean, vicious, and loving.   Five of a thousand adjectives that could be used to describe him correctly at any given moment in his life.  The umbrella description would be one word.


From the author, you hear it all.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  Several of the revelations are amazing. 

Sneaking into his second wife's apartment to gain evidence that she was cheating on Johnny with that lummox Frank Gifford.

Carrying a loaded gun on his person or in his car's glove compartment.

A drunken brawl at Chasen's where Johnny lunges to choke the life out of Tom Snyder, only to be stopped when Ed McMahon throws his body in front of Snyder.

Carson's prickly relationship with Frank Sinatra.

The secret negotiations that would have had the Tonight Show and Johnny defect to ABC, all of which was engineered by Joan Rivers' husband Edgar.

The Vegas weekend when Johnny tried to steal away Bushkin's then-girlfriend Joyce DeWitt.

This book is as juicy as a prime cut steak at Peter Lugar's.  None of it surprised me, but all of it surprised me.  Of course, at the center of it all, is the impact of Johnny's mother, a Joan-Crawford-like parent who perhaps set the stage for the creation of an incredibly complex and flawed human being.  As a result, this is one of the fastest page turners you will ever order from Amazon.

More importantly, the author does not shy away from casting a negative light on his own exploits.  When Carson wanted to party, Bushkin frequently joined right in and has a broken marriage to prove it.  Honesty, as a result, serves as a two lane highway and you watch the author's life become consumed by a job and serving a master that may or may not ever be pleased.

It's a fascinating view then of two men, whose business relationship and then close friendship was likely doomed from the start.

Yes, there's tons of dirty laundry hanging on this clothesline.  But, despite it all, nothing in it has diminished my view of Johnny Carson as a supreme talent and one of the greatest memories of my life.

You will not be dissuaded either.

Dinner last night:  Moo shu pork from First Szechwan Wok.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When can I borrow?